Doing What is Right – March 3, 2013
Ezekiel 13:1-14, Matthew 15:1-20
March 3, 2013
What are your expectations of God? I was talking about that last week. I was saying that Lent is a time when we should look at our lives and see if we are seeking and aligning ourselves with Gods will, rather than seeking our own will and hoping God will align himself with us. And that’s not easy! In fact it may be one of the most difficult things in the Christian faith!
Just think about that. Meeting the needs of our own lives is a full time occupation. It’s what we do day in and day out! Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, or about your body, what you shall wear.” (Matthew 6:25) But think about it. Those are things that we are concerned about every day! Of course, what Jesus was saying, in those amazingly insightful words, was that he didn’t want us to be anxious – worried – about those things. He knew what anxiety, worry, and stress do to us! Instead, he said, “Seek first Gods kingdom. And all these things will be added to you. Because your heavenly father knows you need them.”
Those words come from the Sermon on the Mount, and they are words that may be even more relevant in our time, than when they were first spoken! Because people today are anxious about those things, perhaps more than ever! Obtaining those things of this world making a living is hugely important to most of us! Because of that, we are naturally preoccupied with seeking our will. And making the transition to seeking God’s will is not easy. It’s a matter of making a shift in our thinking, from emphasis on the self, to emphasis on God. And if were honest with ourselves, that’s not something we do very easily.
That’s why its easy to find ourselves having expectations of God. We’re usually more comfortable being in control and having things our way. And too often we find ourselves seeing God as a means to that end. I used to say that some people see God as “The big mail order house in the sky.” When they need something, they pray. And for too many people that’s the only time they pray. And don’t get me wrong! God wants us to ask for things! There are many places in the scriptures that tell us that. One of them is “You have not because you ask not.” (James 4:2) I used to have a little plaque on my wall that said that. God wants us to ask. But that’s not all he wants us to do. He wants to have a living, vibrant, daily relationship with us!
So, we need to consider that it’s hard for us not to have expectations of God. And Lent is a good time to think about that. What are your expectations? Do you expect God to act or to work in your life in a certain way? We talked last week about how the people in Jesus’ time expected him to be king. And when he wasn’t, well, you know what happened!
What I’d like us to think about today is the expectation the people had of Jesus that he would do the right things. Thats what they expected! And yet, as we read the Gospels, we find that time and again he didn’t! He didn’t follow the norms for their life and faith. He didn’t do all the rituals and practices. He didn’t hang around with all the right people. And because of that, he upset a lot of people!
Today we have the story of an encounter he had with the Pharisees. They came from Jerusalem and asked him “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat!” It’s interesting that that Matthew tells us where these guys came from. You’ve heard me say that the members of the religious council were keeping and eye on Jesus. They were the “keepers of the faith.” That was their job! And they weren’t sure what to make of this new rabbi. So some of them came from Jerusalem to check him out. And of course this was their first complaint. “Your disciples are not doing what is right!”
They were not washing their hands. And that had to do with the kosher laws. I want you to think about them for a moment. The kosher laws were first given as a matter of hygiene. They were intended to keep the people safe from diseases. But eventually, they had become more than that! They had become part of their religious customs and practices. And of course, the people had begun to see those laws as even more important than the purpose for which they was given. And these keepers of the law saw those practices as a matter of righteousness. So they were complaining that Jesus and his followers weren’t doing what was right.
What was his response? His response was to turn the accusation around. He accused them of forsaking the commandment for the sake of their tradition. And he used this example of how they allowed for the breaking of the commandment to honor ones father and mother, by saying certain words. Notice that hes doing two things here. First, he’s pointing out, as he often did, that they were hung up on the letter of the law, and they were missing the spirit of the law. That was one of the main beefs Jesus had with the Pharisees.
The second thing he was doing here is he was challenging the Pharisees, and he was starting to make them angry! Think about it. In any argument, one of the most maddening things you can do to someone is to use the words, “Yeah, but you…” Am I right? Do you know how you feel when that happens to you? You come to somebody with a valid argument, and they say, “Yeah, but you do, too!” Or they say, “Yeah, but you do this other thing!” Think about that. Thats one of the quickest ways of escalating an argument! It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire!
Jesus may not have intended that to be the case here. We don’t know for sure. He may simply have been using this example to point out to the Pharisees – and to those listening – that the spirit of the law was the most important thing. He often taught that way. But we’ll see as we make our way through his ministry that the effect he had on the religious leadership was to make them more and more angry.
Jesus also quoted scripture here, which he did a lot. And in this case he quoted from Isaiah 29. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13) Now remember that the Pharisees would have not only known that passage, they would also have known the history of the people to whom it was written! They would have known it was written in a time when the hearts of the people were far from God. It was a time in their history when the people were going through the motions, doing all the right things, but their hearts were cold and hard and they had no connection with God. And now that was being said of them!
That had to have been hard for them to hear! And Lent is a time when we should take care that the same cannot be said about us! We should ask ourselves, “where are our hearts?” “Are we ever just going through the motions?” “In our faith are we ever solely concerned with doing the right things?” And of course, doing what is right is fine. But we should give thought that we’re doing the right things for the right reasons!
The people in his day expected Jesus to do what was right. Or at least what was righteous! And he didn’t! And that was hard for them to deal with. Because, for many of them, the biggest mistake they made was that they expected that righteousness was to be found in actions. Jesus expected that righteousness came from the heart. I’ll say that again. They thought righteousness came from their actions. Jesus said righteousness comes from the heart.
As we think about our faith, the one thing we can always know for sure is that God doesn’t look so much at our actions. Hes more interested in looking at our hearts. That’s what Jesus did when he was here. People wanted to talk with him about actions and practices, Jesus wanted to focus in on what was in their hearts. That’s what he still does. So this Lenten season, I ask you to think not so much about how righteous are my actions. Not that that’s bad. In fact, we should strive for righteousness. We should “hunger and thirst after it,” as Jesus said. But even more, I’d like you to be thinking, “What is the state of my heart.” That’s where God is looking. That’s where we find him.
I close with the words of the prophet Jeremiah, where he told the people what really mattered to God. He wrote. “You will seek me and you will find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) May that be said of us!!
Eternal God, we know that whatever we do for you, the most important thing is the condition of our hearts. We know you want to be in relationship with us, and for us to share our lives and our hearts with you. Forgive us when we just go through the motions. Draw us close to you in this time. Open the eyes of our hearts that we may see you and know you. For these things we pray in your holy name, Amen.